Friday, August 1, 2008

You're a linguist - talk to them!

Another short entry tonight, as I'm leaving in the morning for Chicago. Spending two weeks with my parents, and it should be a blast. I hope I'll be able to post daily and will do my best, but technical details may need to be figured out, so I'll take Saturday night off and try back on Sunday.

Today I decided that the title of this entry should be, "You're a linguist - talk to them!" This is in fact my signature line at some of the forums I visit, and was my favorite line from the movie "Stargate." When I first saw Stargate I wasn't exactly a linguist yet, but I'd done enough of it to realize what a choice line this was.

Because, in a nutshell, linguists are not necessarily translators.

In science fiction when you have linguists on a planet they're usually out to record the language, analyze it, grasp its structure and then move on to really speaking it with the aliens. Theoretical linguistics starts with language patterns like sounds, word subparts, word order, etc. and then moves on to the larger social questions as you move from pragmatics into sociolinguistics. The deeper you go into a given language, the more speaking it becomes an advantage, but at the beginning stages it's not strictly necessary. And the skill of a translator is far, far more than simply the ability to speak a language. For me at least, when I speak Japanese or French I'm thinking in those languages, and purposely not translating because it slows me down. I have great respect, awe and amazement for simultaneous translators. I couldn't do it.

As a linguist you have to stand back from the language a little so that you can analyze what you hear (or think). Often as a native speaker of a language you can be defeated by how subconscious your own knowledge is.

My favorite example of this comes from the study of politeness. If you ask a professor to lend you a pen, you won't do it quite the same way as if you're asking your mom, or your best buddy. But if someone gives you the question: "You're asking your professor for a pen, what do you say?" - and here's the punchline - your answer is likely to be wrong. So if you write your answer down, and then tape yourself the next time you actually do ask your professor for a pen, the two probably won't match.

This is because when we have to answer questions about what we say, we don't actually explain what we would say - we explain what we think we should say. Our actual use is subconscious.

One last thought on the Stargate movie. I was always pretty impressed with the way they handled language. They had the linguist, who had constructed a theoretical pronunciation system for a language he thought was "dead" and only existed in hieroglyphics, sitting in front of those hieroglyphics and comparing notes with a living speaker who actually spoke the language natively. And the linguist figured out the basic pattern of sound change and somehow managed to learn to speak it. Far-fetched? Sure, especially at the speed with which he accomplished it. But someone had really thought that through, and even with my current knowledge of linguistics, I still think it was very well done.